Sunday, June 05, 2011

There Really Was A "House Of Horrors"

A house with false walls, corridors that lead nowhere, windows that open only onto brick walls, has become a staple of both horror movies and crime fiction, but such a house really did exist, in Chicago, in the last years of the 19th century :
....a maze of windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions.

Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle, so only he fully understood the design of the house, thus decreasing the chance of being reported to the police.

After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests. He tortured and killed them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office where they were left to suffocate.

The victims' bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack.
The builder of the house, Dr Henry Howard Holmes, is known as the United States' first documented serial killer. He admitted to the murders of more than two dozen people, but he may have killed as many as 250.

A Harpers Magazine examination from 1943 goes into more detail of this horrific house : 1892 he built on the opposite corner the enormous, improbable structure later to be known as his murder castle. It was more than a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, huge and ugly, with three storeys and a basement.

There were “staircases that led nowhere in particular,” blind passageways, hinged walls, false partitions, rooms with no doors and rooms with many doors. All these centered on the second floor of the gloomy, forbidding structure. Holmes’s own apartments were at the front of this floor. A trap door was cut in his bathroom and from it a short hidden stairway led to a windowless cubicle between-floors in the heart of the house; from this a chute dropped straight to the cellar.

Behind Holmes’s apartments were various rooms labeled in contemporary newspaper sketches as “five-door room,” “secret room,” “mysterious closed room” (behind this last was a “dummy elevator for lowering bodies” to the basement), “the black closet,” “room of the three corpses,” “sealed room all bricked in,” “blind room,” “another secret chamber,” “the hanging secret chamber,” and so on–nearly forty rooms in all. Near the rear of the house was an “asphyxiation chamber–no light–with gas connections.” Here the large purchases of gas fixtures becomes meaningful; it apparently was Holmes’s practice to lock victims in this sealed, asbestos-lined room and to turn on the gas. Immediately behind the asphyxiation chamber was another chute down which the bodies could be dispatched to the basement. Some of the rooms on this second storey were lined with iron plates, some had false floors that concealed tiny airless chambers, nearly all had gas connections.

The cellar was perhaps the most remarkable section of the building. It was fitted with operating tables, a crematory, pits containing quicklime and acids, surgical instruments, and various pieces of apparatus which, resembling mediaeval torture racks, never were satisfactorily explained.

The minds of some humans.

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